Mother of parliaments

It may have escaped the attention of the less eagle-eyed of you, but there’s just been a General Election. While plenty of constituencies  did change hands, Westminster residents seemed pretty happy with their MPs  (Mark Field  and Karen Buck), both of whom increased their majorities.

If you aren’t sure who your MP is, go to Write to Them for a list of all your representatives including Councillors, London Assembly members and MEPs and even Parish Councillors if you happen to live in Ambridge

Currently Parliament is in the period known as prorogation, which is the name given to the period between the end of a session of Parliament and the State Opening of Parliament that begins the next session. Usually there are only a few days between the two events but the current session of parliament was ‘prorogued’ on 26 March to give time for the election.

The next event in the life of parliament is the State Opening, this Wednesday 27 May. Even if you’re not politically-minded, it’s a splendid piece of pageantry involving the official known as Black Rod having the door to the House of Commons shut in his face to symbolise MPs’ independence. Well, maybe it’s weird rather than splendid but it’s a bit of light relief before the serious business of the Queen’s Speech.

Preparing for State Opening: checking the cellars  The Yeomen of the Guard pick up their lamps in preparation for checking the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, a tradition carried out before every State Opening of Parliament since the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

You can find films of the Queen setting off the open Parliament as far back as 1952 on the British Pathe newreel site. In fact, she’s only missed two years – 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward respectively.

Queen Victoria at the opening of Parliament, 1866

The State Opening was originally designed to give the monarch a chance for a roll-call of the lords and other representatives and the ceremony has existed since at least the 14th century. Not all monarchs have been as assiduous in attending as the present Queen, with Queen Victoria bothering to show up only 7 times between 1865 and 1901. Those interested in such things can check back through the Times Digital Archive. The language used in the past was somewhat different and I doubt that will be hearing this sort thing this year:

“The difference which exists in several important particulars between the commercial laws of Scotland and those of other parts of the United Kingdom  has occasioned inconvenience to a large portion of my subjects engaged in trade. Measures will be proposed to you for  remedying this evil”
Feb 1st 1856

For more parliamentary matters, check out the Government section of the Westminster Libraries Gateway to websites. You’ll find links to Hansard which records parliamentary debates, and while I wouldn’t recommend it as bedtime reading (though it would be a good soporific), there are occasional gems to be found. In 1993, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Michael Portillo described Harriet Harman’s appointment as his Shadow as “like appointing Joan Collins to buy costumes for an impoverished amateur dramatic club” while veteran Labout MP Dennis Skinner is famous for his humorous injections during the State opening itself.

And if all this has whetted your appetite for more parliamentary ceremonial, you will be able to watch the whole event on BBC Parliament. It may even inspire you to arrange a visit to the House of Commons, or even get involved in politics yourself.

[Nicky]

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